The marinas at #Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir won’t open this season as the threat of a #water release to #LakePowell looms — Colorado Public Radio #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A longer walk from the dock to the water is in store for boaters at the Elk Creek marina, Blue Mesa Reservoir. Blue Mesa is being drawn down to feed critically low Lake Powell, as continued dry weather and rising demand deplete the Colorado River.
(Courtesy photo/National Park Service) August 2021.

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

Last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior [dropped the reservoir level] 8 feet…from Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to be sent downstream to Lake Powell. The emergency action was needed to prop up water levels in the nation’s second-largest reservoir, which has hit its lowest level on record amid a 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought in the Colorado River basin. The drop in water levels led to an early closure of the marinas, cutting six weeks out of the lake’s five-month tourism season. The National Park Service told everyone who stored their boats at the marinas that they had 10 days to remove their boats from the reservoir.

Federal and state officials said the plan is to leave Blue Mesa alone this year so it can start to recover. But they acknowledge the Colorado reservoir might be tapped again if Lake Powell needs more water to protect its ability to produce hydropower for millions of people across the West. Because of this possibility, the National Park Service has decided not to open Blue Mesa’s marinas this year…

Loken worries that the closures will hurt the local economy, which depends on recreation and tourism. While the ramp at Elk Creek will remain open, closing the docks means hundreds of people won’t be able to keep larger boats in the water for summer. Loken said many of those boat owners live out of town and don’t want to drive back and forth with their boats each time they want to visit.

Lake Powell does need more water to protect its ability to keep producing hydropower. This year, the federal government plans to take water out of the Flaming Gorge reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border while also holding back releases to downstream states. Loken said since projections show the drought will remain and likely worsen with human-caused climate change, people need to change how the Colorado River and its reservoirs are used.

A fleet of rafts makes its way down the Green River toward its confluence with the Yampa River. Future potential releases of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir to boost levels in Lake Powell shape the flows on the Green River, although it’s not clear how the releases may change flow levels. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smity

Aspinall Unit Forecast for Spring Operations (May 13, 2022)

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight). Click to enlarge:

Aspinall Unit operations update (April 30, 2022): Bumping releases up to 700 cfs

Aspinall Unit dams

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 500 cfs to 700 cfs on Saturday, April 30th. Then releases will be increased from 700 cfs to 900 cfs on Monday, May 2nd. Releases are being increased to correspond with the re-startup of diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel. Currently snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is 91% of normal and the forecasted April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 80% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for April and May.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 125 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 350 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 525 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 350 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update (April 13, 2022): Deliveries through the Gunnison Tunnel bumping up to 1,000 cfs

East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel.
Lisa Lynch/NPS

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 900 cfs to 1200 cfs on Wednesday, April 13th and then from 1200 cfs to 1300 cfs on Monday, April 18th. Releases are being increased as diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel continue to increase. Currently snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is 100% of normal and the forecasted April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 83% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April and May.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 600 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 335 cfs. After these release changes Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 350 cfs. There will be a period of higher flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon between Wednesday, April 13th and Monday, April 18th. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit forecast for operations April 7, 2022 — Reclamation #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the graphic for a larger view.

Aspinall Unit operations update (April 5, 2022): Bumping releases up to 750 cfs #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 700 cfs to 750 cfs on Tuesday, April 4th. Releases are being increased as diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel continue to increase. Currently snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is 106% of normal and the forecasted April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 83% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April and May.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 400 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 350 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall unit operations update (March 30, 2022): 300 cfs through the #Gunnison Tunnel #GunnisonRiver

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 775 cfs to 700 cfs on Wednesday, March 30th. Releases are being decreased as flows in the lower Gunnison River are well above the baseflow target. Currently snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is 109% of normal and the forecasted April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 92% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for March and 1050 cfs for April.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 475 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit

Aspinall Unit forecast for operations March 20, 2022 — Reclamation

Click the graphic for a larger view.

Data Dump: Glen Canyon dips into hydropower buffer zone; #LakePowell hits 3,525 feet — @Land_Desk #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell just north of Glen Canyon Dam. January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson):

Lake Powell surface level dropped below the critical 3,525-foot mark sometime on the Ides of March. You’ve probably already read that somewhere, since the national media can’t seem to get enough of the slow motion desiccation of one of the nation’s largest reservoirs. And what’s so critical about 3,525 feet?

Nothing, really.

The real critical number is 3,490 feet, otherwise known as the “minimum power pool.” When Lake Powell sinks below that elevation, Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce hydropower. That’s a big deal because Lake Powell really only serves two purposes these days: recreation and hydropower generation (the water storage component becomes somewhat irrelevant when Lake Mead is as low as it is now). Not only are the dam’s turbines a significant source of power for the Western Grid, but they also provide resilience for the grid in a way that other generators cannot.

Water managers had hoped to keep the level at least 35 feet above minimum power pool, i.e. above 3,525 feet, so they’d have a bit of a buffer to work with. Now the level is inside the buffer zone, which is reason for concern but not immediate alarm. While the rate of decline has prompted officials to issue a more pessimistic outlook for the reservoir, they don’t expect a loss of hydropower anytime soon. Snowpack levels in the watersheds that feed Lake Powell are slightly below average for this time of year, but are tracking about 7 percent ahead of last year’s levels. Spring runoff will soon begin, inflows will increase, and the lake should begin rising again, staving off the turbine shutdown—for now.

Let’s get to the data:

  • 3,569 feet above sea level: Lake Powell’s surface level on March 9, 2021.
  • 3,524.9 feet: Level on March 15, 2021.
  • -44 feet: Twelve-month change.
  • 3,490 feet: Level at which Glen Canyon Dam stops producing hydropower.
  • 384 billion gallons: Amount by which Lake Powell’s storage has declined since November 2021.
  • 855,656 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Four Corners Power Plant.
  • 309,640 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Glen Canyon Dam
  • Lake Powell storage in acre-feet. 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. USBR.
    Glen Canyon Dam’s power output roughly correlates with storage levels, but also varies month to month according to demand. USBR.
    As water levels drop there is less pressure to turn the dam’s turbines, so less power is generated per unit of water released.

    Glen Canyon Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

    Click the link to read the article “Lake Powell hits historic low, raising hydropower concerns” on the Associated Press website (Sam Metz and Felicia Fonseca). Here’s an excerpt:

    Lake Powell’s fall to below 3,525 feet (1,075 meters) puts it at its lowest level since the lake filled after the federal government dammed the Colorado River at Glen Canyon more than a half century ago — a record marking yet another sobering realization of the impacts of climate change and megadrought. It comes as hotter temperatures and less precipitation leave a smaller amount flowing through the over-tapped Colorado River. Though water scarcity is hardly new in the region, hydropower concerns at Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona reflect that a future western states assumed was years away is approaching — and fast.

    “We clearly weren’t sufficiently prepared for the need to move this quickly,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

    Federal officials are confident water levels will rise in the coming months once snow melts in the Rockies. But they warn that more may need to be done to ensure Glen Canyon Dam can keep producing hydropower in the years ahead…About 5 million customers in seven states — Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — buy power generated at Glen Canyon Dam. The government provides it at a cheaper rate than energy sold on the wholesale market, which can be wind, solar, coal or natural gas. For the cities, rural electric cooperatives and tribes that rely on its hydropower, less water flowing through Glen Canyon Dam can therefore increase total energy costs. Customers bear the brunt…

    Nick Williams, the bureau’s Upper Colorado Basin power manager, said many variables, including precipitation and heat, will determine the extent to which Lake Powell rebounds in the coming months. Regardless, hydrology modeling suggests there’s roughly a 1 in 4 chance it won’t be able to produce power by 2024.

    The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Click the link to read “Lake Powell drops below critical threshold for the first time despite attempts to avoid it” on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

    The reservoir is the second-largest in the U.S., and it’s a key piece of the Colorado River storage and supply system. Powell is fed mostly by snowmelt that collects in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. A 20-year megadrought and a hotter climate, fueled primarily by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, has contributed to Powell’s levels dropping to all-time lows…

    Colorado and the other states that share the Colorado River agreed to work together to keep Powell above this critical threshold with the Congressionally approved 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. That agreement creates a 35-foot buffer of water before the reservoir hits “dead pool,” when reservoir levels are so low, the hydroelectric generators can no longer produce energy. Water levels in Powell quickly started to drop after years of back-to-back drought. In response, the federal government in 2021 took emergency action and sent water from reservoirs in Colorado and other states to prop up supplies in Powell. Blue Mesa Reservoir outside of Gunnison lost eight feet of water as a result. Ultimately, those releases did not prevent water levels from dropping below the critical threshold. But U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydraulic engineer Heather Patno said the additional release did add about six feet of water to Powell, and any extra buffer helps protect Powell’s ability to produce energy. Patno said the drop should be temporary as the snow in the mountains starts to melt and recharge the river and reservoirs. She said 2021 was the second-driest year on record for the Colorado River basin, and a very dry first few months of 2022 eroded the snowpack collecting in the mountains…

    New research suggests there might be even less Colorado River water in the future than what’s forecasted.

    A recent report from the Center for Colorado River Studies found that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s projections can be too optimistic, partly because it’s based on the average water inflow into Powell from 1991-2020, a period that includes an abnormal decade in the 90s that was much wetter than the last 20 years. Patno said those findings are important, and it and other studies should be considered when federal and state governments decide how to adapt their water operations to drought. She said Powell projections did improve when the bureau recently switched to using the last 30-year average, but that Powell forecasts rely on models that have a level of risk and uncertainty.

    Powell’s worst-case projections show its level could drop below 3,525 feet again as early as August of this year. Patno said emergency water releases from Blue Mesa and other reservoirs might be needed again as one of the tools to keep Powell propped up, especially as the current snowpack continues to decline. Inflow forecasts into Powell expect about 69 percent of average. The ongoing drought also means dry soil will soak up a lot of that water before it reaches rivers and lakes, Patno said.

    Commissioner Mitchell (CWCB) Statement on Lake Powell Elevation 3525′:

    As of March 15, Lake Powell, a major reservoir that feeds water to the Lower Colorado River Basin, fell below elevation 3525 feet. This is the target elevation identified within the Drought Contingency Plan that provides a buffer to hydropower.

    The decline in Lake Powell was caused by over 20 years of low inflows in the Colorado River System, coupled with depletions that exceeded supplies. The imbalance between depletions and available River flows has historically been compensated by taking water from storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to provide for downstream depletions, thus causing declines in reservoir elevations.

    Below is a statement from Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell:

    “Lake Powell hit elevation 3525 feet this week, which is a direct result of depletions from our major reservoirs over the last 20 years coupled with low flows into Lake Powell. As Lake Powell and Lake Mead have declined, water users in the Upper Colorado River Basin have been living on the front lines of climate change. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have been taking water cuts for 20 years due to prolonged drought, while continuing to meet our Compact obligations. On top of this, water has been provided from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa Reservoirs in an effort to protect Lake Powell. Going forward, all who rely on the Colorado River System must learn to live with what the River provides and adapt to variability of water supply.”

    For more information and updates, visit the Commissioner’s Corner on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website.

    Aspinall Unit Forecast for Operations (February 22, 2022) #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Aspinall Unit forecast for operations (February 11, 2022) #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Aspinall Unit
    Click to enlarge

    #GunnisonRiver Basin #Drought persists — The #CrestedButte News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Colorado Drought Monitor map February 8, 2022.

    From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

    Water experts are monitoring closely how the series of big storms at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022 will affect local stream runoffs, or if the dry spells since then will continue to counteract the gains made in snowpack and snow water equivalency. Drought conditions have worsened across the state, becoming more widespread and more extreme in general, and a large portion of Gunnison County is now considered ‘abnormally dry.’ That may be the new normal, even with sporadic large snowstorms. However, the runoff forecast for both Blue Mesa and Taylor Park reservoirs look on track to fill up to 90 percent of capacity or more, as of February 1 calculations. No additional emergency releases are expected out of Blue Mesa at this time.

    Upper Gunnison River Water District (UGRWD) water resource specialist Beverly Richards gave an overview of the Upper Gunnison Basin water supply as of early February to Gunnison County commissioners during a work session on February 8, and said overall conditions have worsened this water year.

    Drought

    “There are no areas now in the state of Colorado that have no drought conditions,” she reported. “Last summer there was quite a big area that was considered not in drought, however that is changing slowly and there has been an increase in the area where extreme drought conditions are worsening.”

    Areas of the state characterized as in ‘extreme drought’ have increased from 7 percent to about 19 percent since the beginning of the water year on November 1, said Richards…

    The entire Gunnison Basin is at 110 percent of normal for snow water equivalent, having fallen from 150 percent of normal. The upper basin has fallen from 160 percent of normal to 118 percent of normal and is expected to fall further unless meaningful precipitation arrives…

    Reservoir outlooks

    Reservoir storage is up overall in the Gunnison River basin at 52 percent of average, with Taylor Park reservoir standing at 55 percent of capacity as of February 6 and Blue Mesa still at 29 percent of capacity.

    Based on early season projections from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center (CRBFC), the Bureau of Reclamation has projected the total 2022 unregulated inflow into Blue Mesa will be at 825,000 acre-feet, or 90 percent of average. “Hopefully the snowpack will continue to grow so that we do actually see that,” said Richards.

    At Taylor Reservoir, the CRBFC has forecasted runoff into the reservoir to be 1000,000 acre feet, which is 106 percent of average. The Taylor is projected to be 93 percent full after runoff, which is considerably higher than last water year. “The next couple of months, the forecast is going to be really important,” said Richards, as releases will be planned and adjusted based on those.

    Feds, 4 #ColoradoRiver states unveil draft #drought operations plan as 2022 forecast shifts — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

    Glen Canyon Dam August 2021. The white on the sandstone reflects where the water level once was. Dropping levels at Lake Powell are forcing a reduction in outflows from the Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

    From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

    As the crisis on the Colorado River continues, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the four Upper Basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—have drawn up a proposed framework called the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Plan. The framework would be used by water managers to create plans each year, as necessary, to maintain Lake Powell water levels.

    The effort to keep Lake Powell healthy is critical to ensuring hydropower production from its turbines is maintained and to protect the Upper Basin states from violating their legal obligation to send Colorado River water to Arizona, California and Nevada, the Lower Basin states.

    Whether the new plan will be activated this year is uncertain. During a webinar about the working draft on Jan. 28, Rod Smith, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Interior, described this year’s early winter weather as a yo-yo. “December was excellent,” he said, “but January was kind of blah.”

    Public comments on the proposed plan are being accepted through Thursday, Feb. 17.

    Lake Powell’s water levels were successfully stabilized last year after a series of major emergency water releases from reservoirs in Utah and Colorado. Lower Basin states also cut water use.

    Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin

    Modeling last year had found a nearly 90% probability that Powell levels in 2022 would fall below the elevation of 3,525, triggering more emergency releases. But as of Feb. 3, water levels in Powell were almost 6 feet above that elevation.

    Much can change between now and April, when Reclamation and the states hope to complete the framework.

    Last year’s disastrous runoff — the snowpack was roughly 85% of average but the runoff was 32% of average — surprised everyone, and ultimately forced the emergency releases from Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge, two of three federal dams operated by the agency upstream of Powell. Reclamation also operates Navajo, the reservoir located primarily in New Mexico, whose waters can also be used to boost levels in Powell, subject to other limitations.

    The proposed framework identifies how much water from the three reservoirs is available for release to prop up levels in Powell, but only after operations at Powell itself have been managed to best maintain levels of 3,525 feet or above. To slow the decline, Reclamation is holding back 350,000 acre-feet of water in Powell that it would normally release during January-April.

    The agency plans this year to release 7.48 million acre-feet from Powell to flow down the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead.

    Smith emphasized that the releases from Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs will be subordinate to the many preexisting governance mechanisms on the Colorado River, including treaties, compacts, statutes, reserve rights, contracts, records of decision and so forth. “All that stays,” said Smith.

    Taylor Park Reservoir

    This can get complicated. For example, some water from Taylor Park Reservoir, near Crested Butte, can be stored in Blue Mesa but is really meant for farmers and other users in the Montrose-Olathe area. That water is off-limits in this planning.

    Navajo Reservoir, New Mexico, back in the day.. View looking north toward marina. The Navajo Dam can be seen on the left of the image. By Timthefinn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4040102

    Navajo Reservoir releases can get even more complicated. Water was initially identified last summer for release from the reservoir to help replenish Powell, but then delayed. Reasons were identified, including temperatures of the San Juan River downstream in Utah. But feathers were ruffled, as was revealed during the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting, held in Las Vegas in December. Tribes were consulted only belatedly.

    Now, the draft framework language specifies the need for consultation with tribes. Water in Navajo Reservoir is owned by both the Jicarilla Apache and Navajo. To be considered are diversions to farmers but also to Gallup. “Getting this right, particularly in the operational phase, will be critical,” said Smith.

    How might this affect ditch systems in Colorado? “There will be timing issues of when the extra water comes down, but in terms of whether there are any direct impacts to a ditch authority operating under its own decree, there should not be,” said Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, during the webinar. “We don’t expect any disruption to other water users because of this.”

    […]

    “You can help make the best of a bad situation by having any drought operation releases benefit other things on the river, including benefits to threatened and endangered fish species while potentially producing more hydropower revenue [used in part to support endangered fish recovery programs],” said Bart Miller, water program manager for Western Resource Advocates.

    But Miller and others also note that Reclamation’s draft framework represents a short-term solution to a festering long-term problem.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
    @GreatLakesPeck.

    The word drought is found everywhere in the planning documents. Colorado State University climate scientist Brad Udall insists that another word, aridification, better describes the hydrology that has left the Colorado River with nearly 20% less water in the 21st century as compared to the 20th century. Trying to reconcile 21st century hydrology with 20th century infrastructure and governance is like walking on a rail that gets ever more narrow.

    “I think it’s totally appropriate to use this tool but not as a substitute for dealing with the overall imbalance between supply and demand,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School.

    Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at allen@bigpivots.com and allen.best@comcast.net.

    Aspinall Unit update report — #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    The Winter 2021-2022 Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Upper #GunnisonRiver Water Conservancy District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Can the Law of the Colorado River Adapt to an Increasingly Drier Hydrology?

    A Two-Part Article by John McClow, UGRWCD Legal Counsel

    The Gunnison River is a major tributary of the Colorado River. The Colorado River Basin has suffered from drought conditions throughout the 21st Century. The two major reservoirs in the Colorado River System – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – are at historic and dangerously low storage levels. Locally, Blue Mesa Reservoir is a stark illustration of the effects of the current dry conditions. Scientists are warning that “drought” is a term that no longer applies because it implies a temporary condition from which the Basin will recover. A more accurate term is “aridification” because the conditions we have experienced during the past 20 years will continue – or worsen – for the foreseeable future, as hotter and drier conditions make matters worse. Recently published projections indicate that river flows may decline 20 percent by midcentury and 35 percent by the end of this century. There is debate about the causes of the decline, but little disagreement that it will continue to happen. Can the Law of the Colorado River – numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines – founded on a 100-year-old Compact – adapt sufficiently to meet the challenge of aridification?

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
    @GreatLakesPeck.

    PART 1: A Brief Summary of the Law of the Colorado River

    The foundation of the Law of the River is the Colorado River Compact, signed by the seven Colorado River Basin States and the United States in 1922. The Compact is a contract among the signatories ratified by the seven states and Congress and became state and federal law. The Compact divides the Colorado River Basin into an Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico) and a Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona, California). It apportions to the Upper and Lower Basins the beneficial use of 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year. It requires that the states of the Upper Basin will not cause the flow of the river to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years – measured at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the Basins. It also describes how the Basins will share water delivery to Mexico. The Compact contains no reference to “curtailment” or a “Compact call.”

    In the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act, Congress authorized construction of Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) and directed that the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the Lower Basin under the 1922 Compact be apportioned: California, 4.4 million acre-feet; Arizona, 2.8 million acre-feet; Nevada, 300 thousand acre-feet.

    The United States signed a treaty with Mexico in 1944 that guarantees an annual delivery of 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Mexico. In 1948, the Upper Basin States signed the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, which apportions the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted under the 1922 Compact: Colorado, 51.75 percent: Utah, 23 percent; Wyoming, 14 percent; New Mexico, 11.25 percent. The 1948 Compact created the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), consisting of a Commissioner appointed by the Governor of each state and a federal Commissioner appointed by the President of the United States. It also provides that if curtailment of use in the Upper Basin is necessary to maintain the flow at Lee Ferry required by the 1922 Compact, the UCRC will determine each state’s extent and timing of curtailment. It is important to note that neither the 1922 Compact nor the 1948 Compact affect water right administration within the states. In Colorado, that authority remains vested in the State Engineer.

    Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

    In 1956, Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act. The Act authorized construction of the reservoirs, dams and power plants of the initial units of the Project: Wayne N. Aspinall (originally the Curecanti Unit), Flaming Gorge, Navajo (reservoir and dam only), and Glen Canyon (Lake Powell), along with numerous participating projects, “making it possible for the States of the Upper Basin to utilize, consistently with the provisions of the Colorado River Compact, the apportionments made to and among them in the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, respectively.” The CRSP power plants are an important source of hydropower in the Western United States, and the revenue from the sale of that hydropower supports operation of the Project and important salinity control and endangered fish recovery programs.

    The Colorado River Basin Project Act, passed by Congress in 1968, authorized construction of the Central Arizona Project, which can divert 1.5 million acre-feet from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona. Construction of the CAP allowed Arizona to develop its full apportionment of Colorado River water. The Act confirms California’s senior priority to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, meaning that Arizona and Nevada must bear any shortage in the Lower Basin.

    Next Issue: PART 2: Adapting the Law of the River for a Dry Hydrology

    Aspinall Unit Operations Meeting – January 20, 2022 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Aspinall Unit

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    The next Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting will be conducted using Microsoft Teams (see link below). We are again using this format as an alternative to allow interactive participation, as we are not yet able to meet in person. No special software is required. Please contact me at rchristianson@usbr.gov or (970) 248-0652 if you have any questions. The proposed agenda is below:

    Microsoft Teams meeting
    Join on your computer or mobile app
    Click here to join the meeting

    Or call in (audio only)
    +1 202-640-1187,,459511369# United States, Washington DC
    Phone Conference ID: 459 511 369#

    Hope seen for Western water storage in infrastructure bill — The #Montrose Daily Press #GunnisonRiver

    From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    No amount of planning or legislation can make more water — but it can help the parched Western Slope make more use of the water it has.

    The trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes, as part of an overall $55 billion for water infrastructure, $8.3 billion under its Western Water Infrastructure title for the Bureau of Reclamation between Fiscal Years 2020 — 2026.

    On the laundry list of designated funds for Western Water Infrastructure are $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure, $1.5 billion for storage, $1 billion for the Drought Contingency Plan on the Colorado River and $400 million for WaterSMART and energy efficiency grants.

    “All in all, it’s certainly the most meaningful investment in Western water resources that we’ve seen in my generation,” said Zane Kessler, director of Government Relations for the Colorado River District. The district sees an opportunity to fight for some of those dollars to flow into western Colorado, he said — and there are several meaningful investments that Colorado and the Western Slope are well-equipped to pursue…

    The act provides additional funding to the Aging Infrastructure Account created in 2020’s Consolidated Appropriations bill. This funding helps the Bureau of Reclamation provide direct loans to finance the non-federal share of major, nonrecurring maintenance of water infrastructure owned by the bureau, in water projects across the West that require major upgrades or replacement.

    “As those facilities, most of which are more than 50 years old, continue to age, the issue of storing and delivering water effectively, efficiently and in a timely matter only increases,” a summary from The Ferguson Group states. The Ferguson Group represents the Family Farm Alliance, of which the Colorado River District is a member.

    Of the $3.2 billion, $100 million is to be available for dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement. Another $100 million is to be available for reserved or transferred works that have suffered a critical failure, per the summary.

    Water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance projects receive a $1.05 billion boost and of that, $100 million is to fund grants to plan and build small-surface water and groundwater storage projects.

    There is $1 billion available for water projects authorized by Congress before July 1 of this year in accordance with the Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act of 2006.

    The river district is pleased overall with the package of options the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act opens up, Kessler said, and it will be working to bring some of those dollars here.

    The infrastructure act’s passage comes at a time of dire drought in the Gunnison Basin and Colorado.

    The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Earlier this year, Blue Mesa Reservoir was drawn down a total of 36,000 acre-feet between August and October and Flaming Gorge in Utah released 125,000 acre-feet. Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico is set to have released 20,000 by December — a trio of infusions mandated by the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement to keep hydropower operational at Lake Powell…

    The earlier drawdown at Blue Mesa took 17,000 acre feet from the reservoir in August; 16,000 acre feet in September and 3,000 acre feet in October, according to BuRec numbers.

    That provided the requisite 36,000 acre feet to Powell from Blue Mesa, but at the end of October, Powell was 156 feet from full pool, with an elevation of 3,544.25 acre feet. It had 7.18 million acre feet in storage — 30% of live capacity, as Catlin noted.

    He and others eye the weather and potential snowpack. They wait. They hope.

    Catlin said that as it is, the entire Gunnison Basin is drying so much, it’s hard to say what the overall impact might be — but more than agriculture would suffer…

    Taylor Park Reservoir

    Blue Mesa has about 218,000 acre feet in storage, he said. Taylor Park, another pot of water in the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit, sits “OK” at 59,000 acre feet in storage, Knight said. Ridgway Reservoir has 63,000 acre feet in storage, a bit low, but in light of how dry the year was, not as bad it could be, he also said…

    Blue Mesa’s elevation sat at 7,431 this week — ideally, it would reach 7,490 by the end of December.

    “We’ll be nowhere close to that,” [Erik] Knight said.

    Inside the Gunnison Tunnel, the first major water diversion system in the U.S. — The #Colorado Sun

    East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel.
    Lisa Lynch/NPS

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins). Click through for the cool photos, here’s an excerpt:

    After more than a half-hour splashing through the dank dark of one of the world’s longest irrigation tunnels, Dennis Veo grins in the sunshine showering the cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River…

    The 120-year-old, 5.8-mile tunnel was the largest irrigation tunnel in the country when it opened in 1909. It was also the first major transmountain diversion in the U.S., becoming a model for moving Western water beneath mountains, connecting wet basins with dry deserts.

    Today, the Gunnison Tunnel can move more than 500,000 acre-feet of water a year, more than the entire Eastern Slope draws from the Upper Colorado River Basin.

    That water, roughly 1,150 cubic-feet-per-second when filled to the ceiling of the granite-blasted tunnel, irrigates about 83,000 acres for 3,000 members of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and also delivers water to more than 50,000 people in the three-county Project 7 Water Authority. The water that pours from the Gunnison Tunnel is the lifeblood of the Uncompahgre Valley, flowing through 128 miles of major canals and 438 miles of lateral ditches in Montrose and Delta counties.

    “We are the largest diverter of water in Colorado,” says Steve Anderson, the second-generation general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. “We can take about the same as the entire Front Range takes from the Colorado River. And about the same as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California takes out of the Colorado River. That is a lot of water.”

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

    An engineering marvel

    In the late 1800s, it became clear that the fickle flows of the Uncompahgre River alone could not irrigate enough acres in the river valley between Delta and Montrose. There were close to 100,000 acres homesteaded by farmers but only enough water to irrigate a fraction of that.

    An ambitious plan to connect the Gunnison River with the Uncompahgre River valley started in the early 1900s, when a pair of intrepid engineers with the local power company and the U.S. Geological Survey descended the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River on rubber air mattresses. With cameras and rudimentary surveying equipment, they searched for a place to build a diversion dam and tunnel.

    The first bore of the Gunnison Tunnel opened in 1909. It was the first major project approved by the Department of the Interior under the 1902 Reclamation Act. More than 26 men died during construction of what was then the longest irrigation tunnel ever built. Countless more workers were maimed. The manual diggers — crews of 30 men working around the clock from both ends of the tunnel — were off by only 6 inches when they met in the middle, Veo said. By 1912, water was flowing through the tunnel and irrigating crops from Delta to Montrose.

    In 1973, the American Society of Civil Engineers honored the Gunnison Tunnel as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. A few years later it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places…

    The Gunnison Tunnel is the critical link of the Wayne N. Aspinall Unit, one of the four projects that make up the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project…

    The other units created under the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act include the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River in Utah, the Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and Lake Powell in Utah. The network of reservoirs and dams are used by Upper Colorado River Basin states to store water and generate electricity as part of the Colorado River Compact that divides up the river between seven states and Mexico…

    The engineering masterpiece has sustained a lush vibrancy along the Uncompahgre River. It’s pretty simple to imagine what the valley would look like without that tunnel, says John Harold, who farms corn, onion and beans in the valley.

    Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

    New projections for low #ColoradoRiver flows speed need for dramatic conservation

    From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

    A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.

    The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.

    The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.

    In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities…

    “We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.

    Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.

    “These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.

    At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

    Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.

    While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District…

    The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.

    State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.

    But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does…

    The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.

    “You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”

    Front Range cities take water from the Roaring Fork River basin in a transmountain diversion through the Twin Lakes Tunnel. The city of Aspen is studying the potential for an Alternative Transfer Method, or ATM, to increase its water supplies, which could include approaching transmountain diverters about participating in a water-sharing agreement. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

    Aspinall Unit Operations update: Releases to decrease to 1050 cfs October 6, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #LakePowell

    Crystal Dam, part of the Colorado River Storage Project, Aspinall Unit. Credit Reclamation.

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1315 cfs to 1050 cfs late on Wednesday, October 6th. Releases are being decreased to bring an end to the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) emergency releases to Lake Powell.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for October and November.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 590 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 325 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit operations update (September 17, 2021) #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    “The Roundup” newsletter is hot off the presses from @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The boat ramp at Elk Creek Marina had to be temporarily closed so the docks could be moved out into deeper water. Colorado water managers are not happy that emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir are impacting late summer lake recreation.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Colorado water managers unhappy with timing of emergency releases

    In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.

    That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.

    As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.

    Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.

    Blue Mesa Reservoir releases to prop up #LakePowell impacting recreation — @AspenJournlism

    The boat ramp at Elk Creek Marina had to be temporarily closed so the docks could be moved out into deeper water. Colorado water managers are not happy that emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir are impacting late summer lake recreation.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.

    That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.

    As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.

    Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.

    “There are tons of people who would like to be out here boating and are very disappointed,” Loken said. “Normally on Labor Day weekend, you can barely find a place to park. So it’s definitely been a big hit to us as a business for sure.”

    The Elk Creek Marina and restaurant are closed for the season, although the boat ramp is still open and is expected to be accessible through the end of the month. The Lake Fork Marina is open through Labor Day, but the boat ramp has closed for the season. The Iola boat ramp is restricted to small boats only and is scheduled to close after Labor Day.

    “We are just trying to make it through the holiday weekend and then we will be shutting up this marina too,” Loken said.

    The Bureau announced July 16 that it would begin emergency releases through early October from three Upper Basin reservoirs: 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo, on the San Juan River; 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, on the Green River; and 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa, on the Gunnison River. The goal of the releases is to prop up water levels at Lake Powell to preserve the ability to make hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. The 181,000 acre-feet from the three upstream reservoirs is expected to boost levels at Powell by about 3 feet.

    The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, and their primary purpose is to control the flows of the Colorado River; flatwater recreation has always been incidental. But the releases at Blue Mesa illustrate the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change-fueled drought.

    The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Timing concerns

    Although the secretary of the Interior can authorize emergency releases without coordination from the states or local entities, Loken, along with some Colorado water managers, is not happy about the timing or the lack of notice from the bureau. Under normal drought-response operations, the federal government would consult with state and local water managers before making releases.

    “We had very little time to handle this decision that was made that none of us have any power over,” Loken said.

    John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, said Colorado should make noise and complain about what he called a clumsy execution of the releases. McClow has also served on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

    “There’s no reason they couldn’t have waited another couple weeks or another month to release that water from Blue Mesa to get it to Lake Powell,” McClow said. “It goes back to consultation and timing. Had they even asked, it would have been easy to say, ‘Hey, can you wait so you don’t kill our business?’”

    Last month at Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference — a gathering of water managers, researchers and legislators in Steamboat Springs — Rebecca Mitchell, CWCB’s executive director and the state’s representative to the UCRC, told the audience that the impacts of ending the boating season early at Blue Mesa trickle down to all Coloradoans.

    “That means dollars in Colorado. That is who we are in Colorado,” she said. “It’s definitely had an impact in that local community when we talk about the recreation. That is heavy.”

    Mitchell said water managers in the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Utah) will be carefully monitoring the impacts of the reservoir releases and figuring out how to quantify those impacts, which she called devastating. The states will work with the bureau to develop a plan for how to send water to Lake Powell in future years, taking into consideration the timing, magnitude and duration of the releases, she said.

    “Where can the states and the bureau make the best decisions to lessen the impacts?” she said.

    The National Park Service operates the Curecanti National Recreation area, including the campsites, picnic areas, visitors centers and boat ramps that run the 20-mile length of the reservoir. According to numbers provided by the Park Service, Curecanti gets nearly a million visitors a year. The reservoir is popular among anglers for its trout and Kokanee salmon fishing. Blue Mesa is one of three reservoirs — along with the much smaller Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs — on the Gunnison River, collectively known as the Aspinall Unit.

    Barefoot Dance In The Snow New York, New York March 8, 1916. Girls of the Marion Morgan School of Dance in Los Angeles perform barefoot in the snow in Central Park. Underwood Archives by Underwood Archives

    Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce Director Celeste Helminski said her organization is planning an event later this month: the world’s largest snow dance. A big winter would help refill Blue Mesa.

    “The water definitely has me concerned for the future,” she said. “We see a lot of summer recreationists who come and spend the whole summer at several of the campgrounds. It’s just going to take a lot to replace that water. It’s going to take awhile to get back to levels of what recreationists come for.”

    Bureau spokesperson Justyn Liff could not provide any insight into how the timing decision for the releases was made, but pointed out that although lake recreation was impacted, downstream rafting and fishing in the canyon are getting a boost from the roughly 300 cubic-feet-per-second extra water that the releases provide. The Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel diversion, which takes a large portion of the river’s outflow from the Aspinall Unit for delivery to downstream irrigators, was running around 600 cfs the first few days of September, according to USGS stream gauge data. This is a critical data point for boaters running the Black Canyon or Gunnison Gorge sections of the river, which are below the stream gauge. At 600 cfs, the river is flowing 11% above the median for this time of year.

    “If we had waited six weeks, that would have been six weeks less of commercial rafting/guided fishing on the Gunnison River downstream from Aspinall,” Liff said.

    Some boats were still in the water the first week of September at the Lake Fork Marina. Across Blue Mesa Reservoir, the Elk Creek Marina’s boat slips were emptied early because of declining water levels in the reservoir.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Hydropower production

    Although the local impacts to recreation are acute, the impacts of not being able to make hydropower at Lake Powell would probably be much worse. The dams of the CRSP are known as “cash register” dams. The power they produce is used to repay the costs of building the project, maintain operations and provide power to millions of people.

    The Western Area Power Administration distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, including to some power providers in Colorado. According to Water Education Colorado, electric costs will surge as Glen Canyon Dam struggles to produce hydropower because of declining water levels.

    The bureau’s target elevation for Lake Powell is 3,525 feet, in order to provide a buffer that protects hydropower generation; if levels fall below 3,490, all power production would stop. Lake Powell is currently about 31% full, at 3,549 feet, which is the lowest surface level since the reservoir began filling in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to projections released by the bureau in July, Lake Powell has a 79% chance of falling below the 3,525 threshold in the next year. The emergency releases are intended to address this.

    “A loss of power generation is a pretty significant issue compared to a few months of boating on Blue Mesa,” McClow said. “Locally, yes, it hurts, but in the big picture, I don’t know if you can make a fair comparison.”

    As water levels at Blue Mesa continue to fall, Loken worries that this may be just the beginning of an era of empty reservoirs.

    “(The releases) don’t solve the long-term problem,” Loken said. “We are just going to end up with an empty Lake Powell and a bunch of empty reservoirs upstream. I think the powers that be really need to put pencil to paper and figure this out.”

    Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

    #Drought-Hit Blue Mesa Reservoir Losing 8 Feet Of Water To Save #LakePowell. A Western Slope Marina Feels The Pain — #Colorado Public Radio #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    A longer walk from the dock to the water is in store for boaters at the Elk Creek marina, Blue Mesa Reservoir. Blue Mesa is being drawn down to feed critically low Lake Powell, as continued dry weather and rising demand deplete the Colorado River.
    (Courtesy photo/National Park Service) August 2021 via the Montrose Daily Press

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    Climate change is drying up Colorado’s water supply

    Climate change is leading to less snowpack, and warmer temperatures mean less water is making it into the Colorado River. Blue Mesa is Colorado’s largest reservoir, and it hit its second-lowest level on record for the end of August.

    Parks service officials issued the order because Elk Creek’s floating dock and marina are likely to hit the lake’s bottom. Eric Loken, the head of operations at the marina his family has managed for more than 30 years, said the early closure is cutting six weeks out of his five-month season…

    A 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought has dealt a double blow to Blue Mesa this summer. The dry conditions have led to lower levels directly, but the lake is also hurting from drought problems in other states.

    For the first time, the federal government is taking emergency action by taking water from Blue Mesa to help out another reservoir — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Loken said the withdrawals hurt more given Blue Mesa’s low water levels…

    The states that share Colorado River water agreed to this plan in 2019. Low levels in Lake Powell would trigger an emergency release from three reservoirs upstream…

    The water taken from Blue Mesa is being used to make sure hydroelectric power turbines at Lake Powell can keep spinning and generating electricity for millions of people in the West, including customers in Colorado.

    John McClow, a lawyer for the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, said this scenario is what Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs were built for in the 1960s — drought emergencies, not recreation. It’s a bank of water that states can tap when they need to…

    Although the water in Blue Mesa has always been earmarked for Lake Powell if Colorado needed help meeting its legal obligation to send more flow to downstream states, McClow said the timing of the release was unnecessarily disruptive. He wishes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have waited to take the water until October when lake tourism starts slowing down.

    Erik Knight, a Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist, said that while the timing of the water releases might have hurt the lake, it improved rafting and fishing downstream of Blue Mesa, including parts of the Gunnison River that were so low that commercial rafting was likely to have been canceled.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting August 19th, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    The next Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting will be conducted using Microsoft Teams (link). We are again using this format as an alternative to allow interactive participation, as we are not yet able to meet in person. No special software is required. Please contact me at rchristianson@usbr.gov or (970) 248-0652 if you have any questions. The proposed agenda:

    Aspinall Unit Operation
    Coordination Meeting
    August 19th, 2021

  • Introductions and Purpose of Meeting
  • Gunnison Basin Water Supply Outlook – (CBRFC)
  • Weather Outlook – Aldis Strautins (NWS)
  • DROA Overview – Ed Warner (Reclamation)
  • Aspinall Unit Operations – Erik Knight (Reclamation)
  • American Whitewater Request
  • Special Flow Requests and Discussion
  • Reports of Agencies and Organizations – All
  • Conclusions
  • (Next meeting date – January 20th?)
  • Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases bumping down, 600 cfs through Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1675 cfs to 1610 cfs on Saturday, August 7th. Releases are being decreased to bring flows in the lower Gunnison River closer to the baseflow target while still providing the additional release volume under the emergency provision of the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA). The April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 47% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for August and September.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 660 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Reclamation’s July 24-Month Study implements contingency operations in the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver #SanJuanRiver #GunnisonRiver

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):

    The Bureau of Reclamation today released the July 24-Month Study, confirming declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. To protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the study incorporates the implementation of drought operations under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA).

    The July 2021 Operation Plan for Colorado River System Reservoirs 24-Month Study (July 24-Month Study) shows that the Lake Powell water year 2021 predicted unregulated inflow volume has decreased 2.5 million acre-feet in the six-month period between January and July 2021. The current forecast for WY2021 is 3.23 maf (30% of average).

    In addition, 5-year projections released by Reclamation last week predicted a 79% chance that Lake Powell would fall below the DROA target elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.

    Consistent with DROA provisions to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the July 24-Month Study includes adjusted releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to deliver an additional 181 thousand-acre feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of December 2021. The additional releases are anticipated to be implemented on the following schedule:

    Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) planned releases July 16, 2021. The “Last Flush”. Data credit: USBR

    The releases detailed above are in addition to the already established releases determined by operational plans for each of the identified facilities. The additional delivery of 181 kaf is expected to raise Lake Powell’s elevation by approximately three feet. The additional releases from the upstream initial units do not change the annual volume of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in WY2021, as those volumes are determined by the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

    Reclamation publishes a 24-Month Study for Colorado River System reservoirs each month. The August 24-Month Study will set the operating conditions for Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the upcoming year. Reclamation will also release an update to the 5-year projections in early September.

    Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states continue to work together cooperatively to closely monitor projections and conditions and are prepared to take additional measures in accordance with the DROA.

    Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with entities in the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.

    To view the July and prior 24-month studies, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/studies.

    Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases to bump flows through the Black Canyon to 625 cfs, June 18, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

    From email from Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

    Gunnison River flows have dropped off quickly over the last few days and there is a need for more water in the Gunnison River to meet the target of 1050 cfs, pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD). Therefore, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 150 cfs tomorrow afternoon, June 18th at 2pm.

    Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 475 cfs. After these release changes, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 625 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    #UncompahgreRiver: Wrongful death suit filed over teen’s 2019 drowning in South Canal — The Montrose Press

    South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

    From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    A Montrose family whose teenage son and dog drowned in the South Canal in 2019 hit the canal’s operating entity with a wrongful death suit on May 4.

    Their attorney said Matt Imus and Emily Imus, parents of the late Connor Imus, are also pursuing a federal claim against the land management agencies involved with the canal. This is action is undergoing a required administrative resolution process and could proceed to a lawsuit, pending that outcome.

    The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s attorneys say in filings that Connor’s death was the result of his own actions, when he apparently jumped into the canal to save his dog, Bella.

    Both were swept away by the deceptively calm-looking water and drowned. Connor, a standout on the Montrose High School basketball team, was 17.

    As the canal operator, the UVWUA had duties to Connor to mark the property as private and to make clear the dangers of the canal, the lawsuit argues. But per the suit, on May 5, 2019, there was not a chain, a fence or other means of closing off the canal, nor was there signage warning against trespassing and the dangers at the spot where Connor fell in.

    The Imuses are suing for negligence resulting in wrongful death and under premises liability resulting in wrongful death, as well as asserting survivors’ claims. They assert UVWUA’s wrongful actions or omissions caused injury and damages to Connor, who lost his life, and also caused ongoing injury to his parents, who continue to suffer emotional distress, pain and grief because of their son’s death. The plaintiffs want a judge to determine compensation for their loss and suffering; the filing does not specify an amount.

    The UVWUA’s attorneys said they had no comment at this time.

    #Water worries abound as #drought wears on — The #Montrose Daily Press #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #DoloresRiver #GunnisonRiver

    From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.

    “We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.

    “The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.

    Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.

    Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

    Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.

    So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)

    Taylor Park Reservoir

    “I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”

    Ridgway Dam via the USBR

    The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…

    The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.

    Mcphee Reservoir

    McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.

    “The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”

    […]

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    [Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…

    Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

    Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…

    Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.

    In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.

    Aspinall Unit operations update (March 22, 2021): 400 CFS in the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel.
    Lisa Lynch/NPS

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will be ramping up for the irrigation season and releases from the Aspinall Unit will be adjusted to keep Gunnison River flows near the current level of 400 cfs. There could be fluctuations in the river throughout the day whenever Tunnel diversions increase.

    On Wednesday, March 24th testing of the Crystal powerplant will result in a brief period of high flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge. Crystal releases will be increased up to 1700 cfs over a couple hours before decreasing back to the current release rate.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for March.

    Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 400 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. As Tunnel diversions increase, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are expected to stay near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit Forecast for Operations, February 19, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GunnisonRiver

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    #Climate’s toll on the #ColoradoRiver: ‘We can weather maybe a couple of years’ — AZCentral #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

    Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.

    ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.

    Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.

    The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.

    The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.

    As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…

    Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.

    Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.

    “Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”

    Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…

    People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.

    Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…

    The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.

    Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.

    What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…

    Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat

    Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.

    [Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…

    With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…

    In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…

    “A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”

    And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.

    The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    “You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”

    Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

    After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”

    In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.

    The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.

    In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.

    Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.

    In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.

    When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”

    The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.

    Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”

    Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling. Bruchez has taken an active role in Colorado River issues ever since his family suffered from a critical water shortage during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Russ Schnitzer via Aspen Journalism

    A rancher looks to adapt

    Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…

    Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.

    The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.

    “Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”

    Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…

    The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.

    For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”

    […]

    Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

    ‘It affects everybody’

    One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.

    The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.

    Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

    The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

    The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.

    Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.

    Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.

    “When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…

    In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.

    While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.

    Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.

    “Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”

    Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…

    Ranchers, farmers consider using less

    One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.

    His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.

    Palisade is just east of Grand Junction and lies in a fertile valley between the Colorado River and Mt. Garfield which is the formation in the picture. They’ve grown wonderful peaches here for many years and have recently added grape vineyards such as the one in the picture. By inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/15301560980/, CC BY-SA 2.0,

    Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…

    ‘We need to set the terms’

    In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.

    One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…

    Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.

    In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…

    Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.

    Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.

    “When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”

    He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…

    ‘Are we doing enough?’

    At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”

    In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.

    Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

    A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.

    Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.

    “My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…

    Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.

    “It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”

    […]

    “It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”

    Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at ian.james@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.

    #GunnisonRiver, with elevated selenium levels, faces review for reclassification — @AspenJournalism

    This portion of the 58-mile mainstem of the Gunnison River just south of Whitewater has been designated as critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, which are two species of endangered fish. Programs aimed at reducing salt and selenium in the waterway are showing signs of success. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil via Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

    State water-quality officials will soon evaluate whether two water-improvement programs in the Gunnison River basin have successfully reduced a chemical that is toxic to endangered fish.

    The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division is analyzing five years of data on selenium levels in the Gunnison, where heightened selenium and salinity have harmed Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.

    If selenium levels stay at or below the state standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in any of the segments of river that are analyzed by division staff, those segments will be reclassified from a water body that threatens aquatic life to one that meets state water-quality standards, said Skip Feeney, assessment workgroup leader for the Water Quality Control Division.

    After analyzing selenium data, the division will submit a proposal after the first of the year to the CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission recommending a status change if necessary, Feeney said.

    “Our goal is to provide an accurate, defensible proposal to the commission and let the commission make an informed decision,” Feeney said. In an October interview, he said he didn’t yet know “what the water-quality status is looking like.” He added: “That’s just part of the process — we’re just getting started.”

    Reclassifying the river has been a goal since the establishment nearly a dozen years ago of the Selenium Management Program, a collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

    Observers have found elevated selenium levels throughout the basin, but a key river segment of focus is the main stretch of the lower Gunnison that winds for 58 miles from Delta to the confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction. This section, which begins at the confluence with the Uncompahgre River, was designated in 1994 as essential to pikeminnow and razorback survival by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    A map showing the main segment of the Gunnison River, between Delta and its confluence with the Colorado River, which has been designated as essential habitat for two endangered fish species. Map via Aspen Journalism

    Historically, this segment, which runs through the basin’s most populated and developed corridor, has contained selenium levels toxic to the two species of fish, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the Selenium Management Program.

    During the last regulation cycle, which used data gathered from multiple different entities from 2010 to 2015, the calculated level for selenium in the mainstem of the Gunnison was 6.7 micrograms per liter, a level that is 2.1 micrograms above the state standard, according to MaryAnn Nason, the communications and special-projects unit manager at CDPHE.

    Yet, the past five years of U.S. Geological Survey data show that selenium levels have stayed below 4.6 micrograms. Each yearly average was below 4.6, with the average for all five years sitting at 3.2, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.

    Kanzer cautioned that the calculation using only USGS data was “not directly applicable to the CDPHE listing methodology” — because it doesn’t take into account all available data — but he said “it does tell a good story.”

    To calculate the final selenium load for each segment in the Gunnison River, CDPHE is analyzing data from the past five years from the USGS; Colorado River Watch, an environmental advocacy organization; the state; and United Companies, a Grand Junction-based construction company that is required by the state to monitor selenium levels near the gravel pits that the company operates.

    These are hills of exposed Mancos shale in Delta County. Selenium is a natural element found in the soil type that is common in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

    Selenium’s origins and pathway to the rivers

    Selenium is a natural element found in Mancos shale, a soil common throughout the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys in the Gunnison River basin. When irrigators transport water to and through their farms in open canals, selenium dissolves in the water and either percolates into groundwater or gets carried into drainage ditches that discharge into the Gunnison.

    “Where we have good flows of water, (selenium) concentrations are not an issue because of dilution,” Kanzer said. “But smaller tributaries, smaller water areas or backwater areas where you don’t have good circulation, you get selenium that can accumulate in the ecosystem, really in the sediment and in the food web.”

    Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker exist only in the Colorado River basin, said Travis Schmidt, a research ecologist for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. The species are able to swim between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers with the aid of a fish passage at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the lower Gunnison, accumulating selenium and transferring the element to their offspring.

    Selenium gathers in fish tissues when females ingest algae or smaller fish. It then is transferred to offspring during the egg-laying process, Schmidt said.

    “Selenium replaces sulfur in protein bonds, so anything that lays an egg can transfer a lot of selenium to its progeny,” he said.

    Once transferred to fish eggs, the element causes neurological, reproductive and other physiological deformities in a significant proportion of both species of fish, Schmidt said. A study that analyzed fish-tissue samples collected by federal and state agencies from 1962 to 2011 found that 63% of Colorado pikeminnows and 35% of razorback suckers exceeded healthy selenium tissue concentrations in the upper Colorado River basin.

    Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier kneels by gated pipes in his family’s alfalfa field. He received funding to replace an unlined canal with the pipes in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Piping unlined canals, which is one of the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, is critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
    Aspinall Unit

    ’A happy, fringe benefit of salinity control’

    Selenium was first addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 in a document written for the Bureau of Reclamation. The document analyzed the effects of the Aspinall Unit — a series of three dams on the upper Gunnison River — on Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker recovery. In the document, the service concluded that in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation had to increase spring flows downstream of the Aspinall Unit and initiate a management program to reduce selenium in the Gunnison. As a result, the Selenium Management Program was founded in 2009.

    “It’s a two-prong type of plan,” Kanzer said of the program’s goals.

    The first objective is to meet the state standard for dissolved selenium throughout the Gunnison River basin, particularly for the 58-mile main segment, Kanzer said. The second goal is to help transition the pikeminnow and razorback sucker from endangered populations to self-sustaining populations, Kanzer said.

    Program members help irrigators obtain funding from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture, said Lesley McWhirter, the environmental and planning group chief for the bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office. Individual farmers can apply for funding for on-farm irrigation projects through the Department of Agriculture, and ditch companies can apply for funding projects that deliver water to farms through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salinity Control Program.

    The goal of the salinity program, which was started in 1974, is to reduce salt loading into the Colorado River basin. The program awards grants to ditch companies every two to three years. In the last grant cycle, in 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded 11 ditch companies a combined $37 million to line irrigation systems. Of the 11 companies, eight are located in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties, where the Gunnison River runs, according to McWhirter.

    Mancos shale is rich in salt and selenium. So, when farmers receive funding to reduce salt loads, selenium often decreases as well. This is exemplified by a USGS analysis that found selenium loads had decreased by 43% from 1986 to 2017 and by 6,600 pounds annually from 1995 to 2017.

    “The selenium control is a happy, fringe benefit of salinity control,” said Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier.

    Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier stands atop a diversion structure that was built as part of a project to improve irrigation infrastructure completed between 2014 and 2019. Kehmeier served as manager for the ditch-improvement project, which was 90% funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and serves 10 Delta County farms with water diverted from Surface Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Lining and piping ditches, the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, are critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

    CDPHE plans to submit proposal in January

    CDPHE plans to submit its proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission in early January, Nason said.

    If the main segment of the Gunnison River is found to have selenium levels below the state standard, it would mean the Selenium Management Program is closer to obtaining the dual goals of fish protection and selenium reduction, Kanzer said.

    Even if the main segment of the Gunnison is reclassified, the Selenium Management Program will continue efforts to reduce selenium in the Gunnison basin, Kanzer said. These efforts include data gathering and analysis and facilitating meetings among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

    The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker depend on the entire Gunnison basin, so other segments containing toxic selenium levels require reduction efforts. If any new research shows that fish are harmed by selenium at levels lower than 4.6 micrograms per liter, the state could lower the selenium standard, reclassifying segments of the Gunnison as a danger to aquatic life, Kanzer said.

    “The jury’s still out — we’re still trying to understand what levels are acceptable and not acceptable,” he said. “There’s always room for refinement of that standard, and that dialogue is ongoing.”

    After the division submits its proposal to the commission, the proposal will be released to stakeholders and anyone who has applied to receive hearing notices or track Colorado’s regulations. The public can submit their own proposals or comments by emailing the commission. In May, the commission will review all proposals and comments to make a decision on the river segment’s 2020 status, Feeney said.

    This story ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Aspen Times.

    Aspinall Unit operations update November 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GunnisonRiver

    #Drought expected to worsen this winter — The Gunnison Country Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Gunnison Country Times (Sam Liebl):

    If the forecast holds true, the effects would be “exponential” for Gunnison Valley ranchers already hard hit by a dry summer that reduced hay production and rangeland forage by 30%, said Dan Olson with the Natural Resource Conservation Service field office in Gunnison.

    “One year of this drought is crippling,” Olson said. It would be “a real challenge if we had multiple years like this one.”

    The weather service issued its winter outlook for the U.S. on Oct. 15 and pinned many of its predictions for the western part of the country on the continuation of a La Niña, a band of cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the Central Pacific. Those cool waters began showing up on satellite images in August, and the service forecasts the pattern to continue through the winter.

    La Niña years favor precipitation and cooler temperatures in the Northern U.S. Winter storms from the southwest, which tend to dump snow on the San Juans and can produce powder days in Gunnison County, are less likely to occur during La Niña. This is linked to the Pacific Jet Stream staying north of the Southwest U.S. during La Niña winters.

    This jet stream pattern has been in effect for most of October, and is a main reason why Colorado has stayed mostly dry and Montana has been consistently snowy this fall.

    The weather service splits Colorado in half with regards to its winter precipitation predictions. The northern half of the state is forecast to have equal chances of above-average or below-average snowfall. The southern portion of the state, however, is favored to have drier-than-average weather. Gunnison County sits on the dividing line.

    Worsening drought and warmer-than-average temperatures are predicted for all of Colorado this winter. Drought in Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Texas will continue, worsen or develop, according to the winter outlook.

    Blue Mesa Reservoir did not fill to capacity this summer, and unregulated flows into the reservoir were 64 percent of average this year. The water level in Blue Mesa dropped to 50% of capacity this month. The major water sources for the reservoir — the Gunnison River and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison — were flowing at about 53% of average as of Monday.

    Aspinall Unit operations update #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 400 CFS in Black Canyon #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1350 cfs to 1250 cfs on Monday, September 28th. Releases are being lowered while the Crystal powerplant is offline for maintenance. Diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel have also dropped over the last part of September. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release change has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September and 790 cfs for October.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Turning down to 1350 CFS September 23, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Blue Mesa Reservoir. MichaelKirsh / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Wednesday, September 23rd. Releases are being lowered while the Crystal powerplant is offline for maintenance. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release change has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Aspinall Unit Operations update: Turning down to 450 CFS in Black Canyon September 3, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Black Canyon via the National Park Service

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1500 cfs to 1450 cfs on Thursday, September 3rd. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit Operations update: 500 CFS in Black Canyon August 31, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1600 cfs to 1500 cfs on Monday, August 31st. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    #Drought conditions take their toll on Blue Mesa and other area reservoirs — The Montrose Daily Press #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2017

    From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    As drought conditions hammer the state, area reservoirs are shrinking, with Blue Mesa predicted to end the year at 23 feet below its winter target.

    Despite the past winter season bringing nearly average snowpack, runoff throughout the Gunnison Basin fell well below average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review, provided Aug. 20.

    Warm weather brought the snowpack off the mountains early and summer monsoons failed to provide much of a meaningful drink, while extraordinarily hot, dry conditions persist.

    For the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s storage accounts in area reservoirs, conditions are mixed.

    Taylor Park Reservoir

    Taylor Park Reservoir, which is at about 72 percent of full capacity, is OK for the association, manager Steve Anderson said. The UVWUA’s storage account there is full, with only about 20,000 acre feet used.

    “That’s not the case with our storage in Ridgway (Reservoir). We’ll use all our storage this year out of Ridgway. We’ll have to replenish that one with the winter,” Anderson said.

    Ridgway Dam

    The UVWUA has been running its delivery of water to shareholders at 80 percent. “Which, in a year like we’ve had, is good,” Anderson said. “With the limited supply, we’ve managed to meet demand at 80 percent.”

    The largest impoundment managed in the Aspinall Unit, Blue Mesa Reservoir, peaked at 604,000 acre feet, which is 25 feet below full.

    As of Aug. 20, the reservoir was at 521,000 acre feet and peak flow targets for the Black Canyon and lower Gunnison River at Whitewater were met, although the base flow targets for Whitewater were lowered under drought rule provisions.

    Aspinall Unit

    Paonia Reservoir had shriveled to 2 percent of full capacity, while Silver Jack was reported at 46 percent of full.

    Paonia is basically empty, but that isn’t unusual, given the dry year, BuRec hydrologist Erik Knight said.

    Paonia Reservoir

    “They chose to use their full supply of reservoir water as best they could, but being a small reservoir, sometimes it only lasts until August. So it’s not surprising, at least to us or them, that it’s gone already,” he said.

    The reservoir is expected to stay empty as long as more senior water right priorities keep the call on the North Fork of the Gunnison, Knight said.

    Other reservoirs in the Aspinall fared better, with Ridgway showing at 71 percent, Crystal at 88 percent and Morrow Point at 94 percent.

    Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review noted the early melt-off of the snowpack. Although rains at the start of June kept flows into reservoirs in the Aspinall Unit elevated longer than was expected, those levels plunged to “much below normal” by mid-month. Monsoon activity was anemic, providing “almost no precipitation this summer,” the report also said.

    Since runoff ended, hot and dry conditions have prevailed, with near-record dry conditions occurring in April and May. Although those actual conditions caused a higher than normal forecast error, actual runoff volume still fell within the lower range of predictions.

    The National Weather Service’s August weather outlook did not hold encouraging news. It found a high probability of below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures heading into fall…

    The U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of Colorado in at least moderate drought, with Montrose and surrounding counties in either severe or extreme drought.

    The monitor on Aug. 20 noted temperature-breaking records in cities across the West, as well as massive wildfires that broke out in California. The monitor’s report, too, calls the monsoon season a “bust” for much of the Southwest.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases to turn down 50 CFS on August 17, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1650 cfs to 1600 cfs on Monday, August 17th. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 650 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Baseflow target adjusted to 900 CFS, August 13, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1600 cfs to 1650 cfs on Thursday, August 13th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 650 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: ~1050 CFS in the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1550 cfs to 1600 cfs on Friday, August 7th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

    There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.